Fight for Historical Marker Sparks Race Concerns
by Brandi Grissom
May 9, 2012
Reigniting a racially charged debate many thought had flamed out, the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans association is working to install another historical marker on the Texas Capitol campus recognizing the Confederacy.
“It’s nothing, frankly, that anybody needs to get their knickers in a twist about,” said Kirk Lyons, the group’s colorful lawyer.
The organization argues that it is simply trying to highlight an interesting and important tale about how the Texas Supreme Court building came to exist through the use of Confederate veterans’ pension funds. Critics, including 12 lawmakers who fired off a letter Tuesday opposing the marker, say the group is making another attempt to glorify Confederate soldiers and revise the group’s history of racism and slavery.
“Confederate apologists have spent almost 150 years trying to change the Civil War into something that it was not,” the lawmakers, including state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, wrote in a letter to the Texas Historical Commission. “Here’s what it was: an insurrection against the United States government with the main goal of maintaining the institution of African slavery.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans received preliminary approval in January to install a historical marker at the Texas Supreme Court building that commemorates the use of Confederate pension funds to erect the structure. This week, though, the Texas Historical Commission informed the group that state law prohibits the installation of new markers on the Capitol grounds.
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“We need to get that up,” said the group’s highest-profile Texas member, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, of the marker. “It’s a historical monument, and it tells a story.”
With an official state holiday, an effort under way to secure an official license plate and at least three large monuments honoring the Confederacy already on the Capitol grounds, Ellis said, the losing side of the Civil War has gotten its due.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Ellis said. “There are more than enough tokens celebrating the Confederacy.”
The leader of the Texas NAACP said existing plaques at the Texas Supreme Court building already note the role of the Confederate pension fund in its construction.
“There is not much more to say about this, and hopefully no efforts will be made to glorify the Confederacy,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the NAACP of Texas.
The latest effort comes after a 2010 court ruling in a decade-long legal battle between the state and the Sons of Confederate Veterans over plaques at the Supreme Court building. The back-and-forth over the Confederacy’s recognition has gone on even longer, and the lawsuit isn’t officially over. Lyons said installing the historical marker might finally end the fight.
“It is a byproduct, but a very peaceful byproduct, of the ongoing struggle,” Lyons said.
The group, he said, has not been informed that its application for the marker was denied. And he disputed the Historical Commission’s interpretation of the law regarding placement of monument on the Capitol grounds.
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Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1954 that allowed money from the Confederate veterans pension fund to be used for new buildings. At the time, the number of living Confederate veterans had dwindled, and the funds were sitting idle. Meanwhile, the state bureaucracy was growing, and the Capitol building wasn’t big enough to house all the new agencies.
The Supreme Court structure was built in 1957, and in its cornerstone are copies of the constitutional amendment and the law that designated the building as a memorial to Texas Confederate veterans. Two plaques were installed in the mid-1960s. One noted the building’s dedication to the veterans. The other bore a quote from Gen. Robert E. Lee: “I rely on Texas regiments in all tight places, and I fear I have to call on them too often. They have fought grandly, nobly.”
Nearly two decades later, voters repealed the constitutional provision relating to the Confederate pension funds, and in 1979 the Legislature repealed the law dedicating the building to the veterans.
The plaques were quietly replaced in 2000 amid then-Gov. George W. Bush’s run for the White House and a national controversy over Southern displays of Confederate symbols. The new plaques are less overt in their praise. One simply says that Texas courts should provide equal justice to all “regardless of race, creed, or color.” The other reads: “Because this building was built with monies from the Confederate Pension fund it was, at that time, designated as a memorial to the Texans who served the Confederacy.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the state over the replacement of the plaques, arguing that the move violated the Texas Constitution and that it broke open-meetings laws and the government code.
Granvel Block, commander of the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the existing plaques are apologetic and don’t fully explain the story of how the building came to be.
“The plaques that are there now are not something that acknowledges our ancestors,” Block said.
In 2010, the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that the new plaques did not violate any laws, but that the government code was not followed in the procedures to install the plaques. The court ordered the state to pay lawyers’ fees in the case.
In a letter to Terry Keel, executive director of the Texas Facilities Commission, seeking permission to install the new marker, Lyons hinted that the marker could put an end to the litigation.
“It is hoped that this Marker may clarify any confusion and help to diffuse any remaining anger or frustration over the dedication,” he wrote.
Fueling the controversy over the marker, though, is Lyons’ own background. He is chief trial counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit law firm whose mission is “a return to social and constitutional sanity for all Americans and especially for America’s most persecuted minority: Confederate Southern Americans.”
He has a history of representing defendants accused of racially motivated crimes and has been labeled a “white supremacist lawyer” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization. In 1990, Lyons married the sister of a convicted member of the Aryan Nation, David Tate, at a wedding ceremony at an Aryan Nation compound.
Lyons, however, vehemently denies that label and said he only represented men he believed were innocent. And he said he “made poor PR choices,” but that he “got the most wonderful wife in the world out of it.”
“I have never, ever, ever, ever, ever described myself” as a white supremacist, said Lyons, who is also a member of the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, adding that the group shouldn’t be judged based on negative — and, he contends, false — perceptions about his background. “There’s nothing sinister about what they’re doing. It’s a good thing.”
Lyons said the goal of the historical marker is simple: to explain how the court building was funded.
“The state of Texas owes an inordinate, immense debt to men who came back from the war,” Lyons said. “The C-word is going to be there. I’m sorry. People just need to deal with history.”
© 2012 The Texas Tribune